New Energy Vehicles are the new fad and while automakers join the bandwagon, each one is trying to devise better batteries capable of selling sceptical consumers on EVs and running the grid on renewable power. And yet, the battery of the future – at least for the coming decade – will almost certainly be the battery of the past.
The humble lithium ion battery has built up such a commanding lead that competing technologies may struggle to catch up. This lead, however, will only widen as a wave of planned new lithium-ion factories come up in the next five years.
Recently established plants in China, the US, Thailand and elsewhere that have been pouring batteries will further drive down prices which have already plunged 85 per cent since 2010. And the billions spent on such factories will help the industry to keep tweaking lithium-ion technology, improving it bit by bit.
The humble lithium ion battery has built up such a commanding lead that competing technologies may struggle to catch up.
Solid state batteries which are currently the most worthy successor for lithium-ion batteries has been taken up by several researchers in recent times. “We don’t think lithium ion is going to be disrupted,” said Erik Terjesen, senior director of licensing and strategy for Ionic Materials Inc, whose company is working to perfect solid-state batteries.
However, Ionic isn’t trying to replace lithium ion. The company explains that its tech is based on a polymer electrolyte that will work inside existing batteries. This means that all those new factories can use it without buying expensive new equipment.
“We don’t believe, given all the investment in lithium ion, that people are going to throw that out the window and start over from scratch,” Terjesen said.
In the current market, not everyone is convinced about lithium ion’s capabilities. A few auto titans pine for a breakthrough technology that will spawn long-range EVs capable of delivering 500 miles on a charge that will persuade reluctant consumers.
The need to store renewable power in bulk could require alternative battery technologies. Former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, in a February interview with Bloomberg, said that kind of short-term energy storage won’t help integrate large amounts of renewable power.
“It’s not going to handle a day, a week, a month, a season,” said Moniz, who recently co-wrote a report calling for far more research investment in batteries. “That’s why you need different approaches.”
The battery of the future – at least for the coming decade - will almost certainly be the battery of the past.
Other alternatives that are to replace lithium-ion battery range from flywheels to flow batteries, which have failed to catch on with the growing market which grows more and more comfortable with Lithium-ion batteries. California based company Primus Power, for instance, offers a flow battery that can produce 25kW of electricity for five hours. “Lithium is a sprinter, Flow is a marathon runner.” Said Primus Power CEO Tim Stepien.
“Lithium is more bankable, all the rage, what everyone is going to today — for sure,” he added.
Similarly, Sila Nanotechnologies are working towards improving the staying power with their silicon-based powder that is fashioned into an anode. At the atomic level, silicon can hold more lithium that the carbon in graphite can, the most common anode material. This means that Sila’s products can store more energy but at a higher cost. The company has raised about $125 million to date and formed a partnership with BMW AG to develop the technology.
Driven by rising production of electric cars, worldwide manufacturing capacity for lithium-ion batteries almost tripled in the last five years alone, according to data from BloombergNEF. Capacity now stands at 302.2 gigawatt-hours, and plants with another 603.8 GWh are planned to open within the next five years.